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How the Power & Control Wheel Helps Us Understand Domestic Violence

It can be hard to understand the complicated dynamics of domestic violence. When you hear a story involving this type of abuse, you may question how someone could let this happen to them, or why they didn’t just leave. The reality is that domestic violence is complex, as illustrated by the Power and Control Wheel. The questions to ask should be directed at the behavior of the person who is abusing: why are they being abusive to their partner? What have they threatened to do if the person they are abusing leaves?

Created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in 1984, the Power and Control Wheel allows us to get a more comprehensive picture of exactly what occurs in an abusive relationship. It shows an overall pattern of abusive and violent behavior, which allows us to see that domestic violence (or intimate partner violence) isn’t just about one incident. Looking at these actions as part of a broader pattern also helps us see how people who abuse control their victims — and why it is so difficult for victims to leave.

At Blackburn Center, we use an updated version of the Wheel, which is gender neutral. This reflects the reality that domestic violence can and does happen to everyone — women, children, and men — and in all types of relationships, including LGBTQ relationships. While the majority of people who experience intimate partner violence are women (4 out of 5), it is important to remember that domestic violence can affect anyone’s life.

The Wheel describes 8 different types of abusive behavior, including:

  • Coercion and threats

  • Intimidation

  • Emotional abuse

  • Isolation

  • Minimizing, denying and blaming

  • Using children

  • Economic abuse

  • Privilege (i.e., the abusive person insisting that they must make all the decisions, or that their partner must do all of the “women’s work”)

These types of abuse typically occur in addition to overt acts of physical or sexual violence. For example, a person who abuses may limit their partner’s interactions with other people (isolation) and threaten to commit suicide if they ever leave them (coercion and threats). This abusive behavior works to establish control over the abusive person’s partner. If and when they becomes physically or sexually violent, the person they are abusing may think that they deserve it, or believe that they have nowhere else to go.

This Wheel is helpful in distinguishing between domestic violence and situational violence, which occurs when one or both partners in a relationship handles conflict using violence. With situational violence, there is no pattern of power and control. Instead, there are incidents of physical or verbal aggression that exist without this added dynamic. While situational violence is wrong — and is often a criminal offense — it is distinct from domestic violence.

When we understand the broader patterns of domestic violence, we have more empathy for victims and survivors. That is why the Power and Control Wheel is so useful: it offers a visual illustration of how people who abuse exercise control over their victims. By understanding more about domestic violence, we can work together to end this problem.


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